Thy Tran is a chef-instructor and food writer living in San Francisco. She is the founder and executive director of the Asian Culinary Forum, a nonprofit dedicated to educating the public about the history and culture of Asian food around the world. Her writing has been featured in The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Fine Cooking and Saveur. Follow her recent forays into the hot, sweet, and sour world of pickles at Pickle Power.
Three Questions: You've traveled all over the world, talking to farmers and cooks and grocers, seeking out interesting food and recipes. Where were you most surprised to find something really sophisticated or interesting? What was your most unexpected food-related travel experience?
Thy Tran: Hmmm ... where to start? So many wonderful memories.
Sophisticated is relative, so I'll stick to the most unexpected. When I was walking around in northern Laos, I kept seeing these dark strips hanging high up on electrical lines in front of people's homes. It took me days to figure out that they were leather. And even longer to understand that those little dried bits of water buffalo hide were not for making sandals but were, in fact, the not-so-secret ingredient in jeow bong, a spicy-savory chile sauce that I was enjoying at practically every single meal. Also in Luang Prabang, I had sheets of fresh-water algae -- riverweed? -- that were spread thin, dried, sprinkled with aromatics and sun-toasted crisp. Like nori, but a thousand times tastier. I would go all the way back to Laos just for those two simple, elegant, delicious foods.
TT: I love my work, and I feel very lucky to have found my own little niche in this crazy world. To wake up every morning and do exactly what I love to do! It's a privilege that I never, ever take for granted.
It wasn't always like this, though. There was an early period of washing test tubes, breeding fruit flies, plotting dots across endless blue grids. And then there were a couple more years spent knocking on doors, neighborhood after neighborhood, to collect stories and signatures. After spending so much time studying biochemistry (I'll be a scientist!) and then ditching that to save the world (I'll be an activist!), I hit a really low point in my life. It wasn't enough to play a role or to think some abstract goal was important. There's the day-to-day reality of work that can wear down the best of intentions.
Devastated, I gave myself a break from the pressure of Making the Right Career Choice. I moved to a totally new city and got a 9-to-5 job in a jewelry store -- and I don't even wear jewelry! What was key during this period, though I didn't realize it until much much later, was that there was no stress, no worry.
I couldn't believe how much free time I suddenly had. Practically every evening and definitely on the weekends, I was in my kitchen. It was a tiny galley. Two people couldn't squeeze past each other in it, and I didn't have a decent knife let alone the proper pans or fancy ingredients. The place had a crappy electric stove, one of those models with exactly six discrete levels of heat for each burner. But still, I splurged on a hard-cover copy of Ann Willan's La Varenne Pratique and cooked my way through every chapter. Although I'd been cooking since I was eight -- my mom was single, worked nights and expected me, as the oldest, to prepare meals -- I had never before thought of food as creative self-expression. Or meditation. Or healing. Or contentment.
That whole year, I had no one else to please. I just learned, explored, cooked, ate, cooked again, ate again. My friends thought I had lost my mind -- they were all in graduate school or had their first big promotions. Me, I was working a minimum-wage retail job and talking on and on about the difference between pretzels and bagels. And my mom? Let's just say that she finally simply gave up and left me in peace.
Anyway that quiet, open-ended year with hours upon hours in the kitchen all by myself, learning about the magic of egg whites and seeing the heart-breaking smoothness of newly tempered chocolate and smelling the story of roux as it darkens slowly -- that year led me to culinary school and to what I'm doing now. There wasn't a specific a-ha moment when the door opened and the path appeared all smooth and straight. It was more of a gentle easing into a comfortable, warm place that fit me perfectly.
3Q: Your recent interest in pickle and vegetable preserving has been felt in my household - we've been trying all sorts of pickling on everything that comes out of the garden. What are some of the most unorthodox preserved vegetables or other sorts of pickle you've had, and what were the most successful you've made yourself?
TT: The most unusual pickle I've tried so far has been a wrinkled up, flabby flop of a daikon that was preserved in rice bran for five years. Known as nukazuke in Japan, it's a deeply fermented pickle, one of those love it or hate it foods, like a funky washed rind cheese or durian cream puffs. Even in Japan, a distinct minority of people will go near one of these. My own nukazuke are much younger. I prefer to eat them after three days or a week, but that daikon shared so graciously with me in Japan is certainly memorable.
The current favorite child in my pickle pantry? Definitely the live sauerkraut, flavored with apples and juniper berries. I'm especially proud that I made it without adding water. It's all about freshly harvested cabbage -- along with enough patience and trust to let it do its thing quietly, slowly.